Midway's John Vignocchi talks courting Chuck D, Just Blaze for new Ballers title


When it comes to sports titles -- or any videogame for that matter -- choosing the right voice and soundtrack for your game can be the key to enhancing the game experience. Who doesn’t remember sports announcer Marv Albert’s unforgettable commentary in Midway’s classic arcade title, NBA Jam? If you’re not yelling "Boomshakalaka!!" once a day, you might consider having your head examined.

Last week, Midway announced the talent behind the voice and music of their upcoming next-gen arcade-style basketball affair, NBA Ballers: Chosen One. Gamers will dribble and dunk to the sounds of hip-hop producer Just Blaze, and the legendary Chuck D of Public Enemy fame will rock the microphone for the game’s commentary.

In many cases, securing celebrity talent like this isn’t much more difficult than calling an agent and then writing a check. I had a chance to catch up with NBA Baller’s lead designer, John Vignocchi, who tells me the NBA Ballers: Chosen One story is a bit more interesting than that.

"It’s actually a great story," he tells me.

Following Dave Chapelle’s well-publicized "freak out" and subsequent journey to Africa, Vignocchi says they initially tried to snag the comedian for the gig. At the time, Chapelle had been developing a new sitcom, and because of this, talks with his people eventually washed up.

But all of this activity had caught the attention of Queens, New York native and hip-hop royalty in his own right, Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg. Despite having contributed music to the soundtrack for previous Ballers titles, the fit wasn’t quite a match made in heaven.

"Phife went ahead and dropped a demo," Johnny V tells me, "but we didn’t feel that the energy was perfect.  We asked Phife and his manager, Roots, if they could think of anyone else who might work for the gig, and they recommended Chuck."

Vignocchi is open about being a bit skeptical at first. But not because they weren’t doing back-flips over the proposition of the legendary emcee lending his voice to their title, but because it was almost too good to be true.

"In all honesty, we didn’t think we had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting Chuck," Vignocchi admits. "Nevertheless, about a day after I received his contact info, I shot over a very to-the-point email that basically said 'Hi, I’m John. I’m not in marketing. I actually work on the game, and Midway would be honored to work with you on our new basketball game. Interested?'"

Chuck D's surprising response?

"When do we start?!"

Public Enemy's Chuck D

Getting producer Just Blaze involved took a bit longer, and was an improbable candidate from the start -- he had already publicly stated that he simply despised the Ballers games. A huge gamer, Blaze contributes to hip-hop culture magazine XXL’s "Games People Play" column. It was there, in 2003, that he had made no bones about disliking Midway’s series, instead favoring competing basketball titles.

"Of course he'd never even played the game," Vignocchi tells me, "a fact that made my blood boil."

Then, during a PR tour for the sequel in the Winter of 2005, the Ballers producer’s true-to-form pimp-like lifestyle leads to a chance meet-up with the on-record hater of the series.

"I received a phone call from a buddy of mine who asked if I wanted to meet up with some of his friends at the infamous Penthouse Executive Club," says Vignocchi, "As it turns out, these ‘buddies’ were owners of the clothing company LRG, and they just happened to be hanging out with Just Blaze …"

Not surprisingly, the topic of past "hateration" comes up, and Blaze makes a surprising admission.

"He explained that his comments back in 2003 had stemmed from working with a direct competitor of ours," Vignocchi reveals, careful not to name any names, "and at the time he felt an allegiance to their product over ours. As of 2005, however, he had severed ties with this other company because of some unresolved business between them."

After what we can only imagine to be a "few drinks," the two put past differences aside before the night was through, and their chance meeting eventually led to Blaze’s collaboration with Midway on NBA Ballers: Chosen One.

We’ll see if Vignocchi’s elbow rubbing with hip-hop greats and backbreaking late nights at the Penthouse Executive Club pays off, when NBA Ballers: Chosen One hits the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 this spring.

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Nick Chester
Nick ChesterFormer Editor-in-Chief (2011)   gamer profile

Editor-in-Chief @ Destructoid.com nick at destructoid.com  more + disclosures



Filed under... #Midway #PS3 #Xbox 360



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